Hitting close to home

Two men drawn by the opportunities and comforts Canada offers now stand accused of a terror plot

Blood on the tracks: Jaser and Esseghaier are accused of plotting to derail a Via Rail train

Rogers Citynews

He is heir to a legacy of anger—“forced into exile,” as his father, Mohammed, once put it, “because of our identification as Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and most importantly, as non-Jews.” Raed Jaser was listed as “stateless” back in March 1993, when he was still a teenager and his family sought refugee status in Canada. The resentment practically rises from the pages of affidavits his dad filed in support of their claim. “We lived in tents, through freezing winters and blazing hot sun,” the elder Jaser said of the family’s time in resettlement camps on the Gaza Strip. They were forced there in 1948, he said, after the Israeli army seized their home in Jaffa to make way for Jewish settlers: “We were homeless and in poor health.”

The sense of rootlessness, suspicion and upheaval that defined his parents’ lives undoubtedly left its mark on Raed. He was born much later, after the family settled in the United Arab Emirates, and he fled with them to Germany amid growing hostility toward Palestinians in the U.A.E. over the 1991 Gulf War (they were seen as sympathetic to Saddam Hussein, who had extolled their cause). Then, in Berlin, the Jasers faced anti-immigrant sentiment that, according to Mohammed, culminated in someone throwing a Molotov cocktail into their home. “Our lives were threatened and we were harassed and abused during the process of our refugee claims in West Germany,” he said in court documents uncovered this week by Maclean’s. “Ultimately, we were forced to flee in fear of our lives.”

If Canada was Mohammed’s solution to all this—a refuge of tolerance and opportunity where a boy like Raed might leave behind past hatreds—it didn’t work. On Tuesday, the 35-year-old Raed was led into a courtroom to face accusations of plotting to derail a Via Rail train somewhere between Toronto and New York—a plan police allege was supported and directed by al-Qaeda operatives based in Iran. “Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured,” said RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia. “Each and every terrorist arrest the RCMP makes sends a message and illustrates our strong resolve to root out terrorist threats and keep Canadians and our allies safe.”

Also charged was Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian-born Ph.D. student from Montreal who seemed an equally improbable candidate to wage jihad in the Great White North: blessed with smarts and ambition, the 30-year-old had parlayed his work in a Université du Québec nanotechnology lab into conference appearances across North America. He had published papers proposing new methods for detecting prostate cancer, HIV and other diseases in people and animals. Both men have denied the charges against them.

The arrests came as a jolt in a country feeling thankful for its low profile as the manhunt for Boston’s bombers came to its breath-taking, bloody conclusion. For more than a decade, intelligence officials and security experts have warned about the onset of “outsourced” jihad—cadres of homegrown extremists performing the work once done by established terrorist groups, and in some cases initiating it. Yet the reality of the threat has never quite sunk in. The prosecution of the so-called Toronto 18; the conviction of an Ottawa man, Momin Khawaja, over a plot to set off fertilizer bombs in the United Kingdom; the role of young Islamic converts from London, Ont., in the Algerian gas-plant explosion; the bombings in Massachusetts: none of these cases overcame our prevailing sense of incredulity that we could matter enough, that anyone could hate us enough, to actually hit the detonator on Canadian soil.

Now, as the backstories of the accused emerge, a different strain of disbelief presides. Here by all accounts were two men favoured with the opportunities and comforts that Canada offers. Chiheb Esseghaier enjoyed a bright future as a researcher. Raed Jaser spent at least part of his young life embracing the suburban dream, driving a black sports car around Markham, Ont., swimming in his family’s backyard pool. Could either of these men grow so disaffected as to want to destroy it? What, or who, could instill that level of anger? Above all other questions posed by the dreadful scenario outlined by police, why?

In a picture posted on his thesis adviser’s website, Chiheb Esseghaier looks as happy as his fellow Ph.D. students crowded around him. Wearing a black T-shirt, brown sandals and black capri pants with blue cuffs, Esseghaier smiles from behind a pair of small, black-rimmed glasses and a great bushy, moustache-less beard. Skinny, young and seemingly unconcerned by personal appearances, he looks every bit the typical Ph.D. student cliché.

He acted like a typical Ph.D. student, too—on paper anyway. Born in Tunis, Tunisia, Esseghaier received an engineering degree in industrial biology from Tunisia’s Institut national des sciences appliquées et de technologie in 2007. He received his master’s one year later, and by the time he was 28 Esseghaier had been accepted to Université de Sherbrooke, located in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region. He lived in a one-room apartment on Galt Street—Sherbrooke’s main drag—and published his research, most of it relating to the study of analytic devices known as biosensors, in several academic journals.

It was his move to Institute national de la recherche scientifique, Quebec’s premier scientific research facility associated with Université du Québec, where Esseghaier really began to shine. In 2010, at just 28, he joined Biosensor BioMEMS Bionanotechnology Lab, an INRS laboratory run by a University of Cambridge-trained bio-engineer named Mohammed Zourob. Known colloquially as “BBBL” amongst its students, Zourob’s class was a cloistered group of hand-picked students specializing in the study of nanotechnology and biosensors. In total, there were 16 Ph.D. students studying under Zourob.

Along with a fellow Ph.D. student, Zourob and Esseghaier published two papers, on biosensors and early prostate cancer detection, in 2012. As of last year, anyway, Esseghaier apparently wasn’t deemed enough of a danger to travel by plane to America. With Zourob, Esseghaier went to a conference in California last summer. But on at least one other conference trip, to Mexico in May 2012, the CBC reported two undercover surveillance officers trailed him on the Air Canada flight to Cancun. While on that flight, according to the network, Esseghaier was involved in an altercation with a female flight attendant after going to the washroom.

In March, less than a month before his arrest, Esseghaier published a paper on HIV detection, along with Zourob and the same Ph.D. student, in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics. According to an INRS professor, Zourob left the university last fall. Zourob didn’t respond to an interview request. His BBBL website went dark in the hours following news of Esseghaier’s arrest.

Esseghaier’s analytical ways couldn’t contain a stubborn religious streak, however. He reportedly ripped down posters around the INRS campus in Varennes, northeast of Montreal, saying the images offended him. He also complained of the dearth of on-campus prayer rooms. He openly railed against paying taxes in Canada, saying that to do so meant de facto support for the country’s military presence in Afghanistan. A neighbour of his in Sherbrooke told La Presse that he could hear Esseghaier wailing in prayer through the walls, especially at night.

Then there is the matter of his LinkedIn page. Above a list of his educational feats and myriad published articles was a white-on-black image emblazoned with a white circle and Arabic lettering. It is thought to be the emblem with which the Prophet Muhammad sealed his letters. It is also the so-called “black flag” used by the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s political arm. The emblem disappeared from the page within 24 hours of Esseghaier being taken into custody.

On Tuesday morning, the day after his arrest, Esseghaier appeared in front of a judge wearing a blue-striped black windbreaker, dark pants and white sneakers. They were the same clothes he’d been wearing the day before, when he was arrested and carted out of Montreal’s Via Rail train station—part of the very network he and an accomplice allegedly planned to bomb.

Though seemingly a little heavier and a bit more dishevelled, the 30-year-old who appeared in front of Judge Pierre Labelle didn’t look much different from the picture of the Ph.D. student snapped some months before. Esseghaier, who was ushered into court at Montreal’s Palais de justice by two guards, stood nervously with his wrists in cuffs and his fingers knitted together over a railing in the defendants’ box. His eyes darted between Judge Labelle and the media horde assembled to watch him.

He’d had quite the 24 hours. According to federal prosecutor Richard Roy, RCMP officer Dave Ouellette approached Esseghaier at 12:20 p.m. on April 22 at the McDonald’s in Central Station in downtown Montreal. “Mr. Ouellette was familiar with the investigation, and knew Mr. [Esseghaier] by his face,” Roy told the court. “Just before making the arrest, Mr. Ouellette called out his name and the man responded with ‘yes,’ confirming his identity.”

Esseghaier was then flown from Saint-Hubert Airport on Montreal’s South Shore to Toronto for interrogation, only to be flown back less than 24 hours later for his appearance in Montreal. Roy, who called the hearing a “formality” shortly before appearing before Labelle, explained that because Esseghaier was arrested without a warrant, he had to be remanded in front of a judge in the province in which he was arrested. Just before his brief court appearance ended, however, Esseghaier addressed the judge and asked to speak. “All the conclusions were made from facts and words that are but appearances,” he said, speaking softly but quickly. “We cannot make these conclusions from against me . . . ” at which point Labelle cut him off—one day Esseghaier will have his chance to tell his side of the story.

Raed Jaser appeared in the prisoner’s dock of courtroom No. 103, at Toronto’s Old City Hall courthouse, wearing a long black beard and a black skullcap over his short curly black hair. A slim, fit-looking man, he peered into the gallery, no doubt seeking out the family members seated there.

When asked to spell his name and indicate his date of birth, a ritual part of such appearances, he did so in a clear, strong, loud voice. A routine publication ban covered the proceedings, during which the 35-year-old was remanded in custody until his next court date, in May.

In the gallery of the small courtroom, otherwise packed with media, sat the members of the Jaser clan, including Raed’s mother, Sabah, in a white hijab with glittering silver thread, and, with a clipped grey moustache, Mohammed, the patriarch, whose history and preoccupations have so defined Raed’s life. Seeing them, Raed clasped and unclasped his hands, but otherwise appeared self-possessed and cool.

Mohammed, who wore a grey suit, a grey pinstriped flat cap, and a tasteful black and grey tie, is a distinguished man with the easy grin of the newspaper advertising salesman he once was. Outside the courtroom, when the Jasers were joined by two slim women in full-body niqabs, Mohammed continued speaking, gesticulating as though discussing a football match just ended.

Within a few minutes he’d dropped that easy manner, and gave a demonstration of his grit. Confronted with a wall of media at the courthouse steps, Mohammed dove alone and hatless into the gauntlet of cameras and reporters, striding across the square diverting members of the media from the Jaser women and young men. “I have nothing to say,” he repeated, once or twice revealing that easy smile. “Of course I’m supporting my son, of course, that’s right, he’s my son!”

Nearby, two young male relatives walked unmolested from the scene. What about Raed’s arrest, a reporter asked them. “We know as much as you do,” one said.

The life that Mohammed Jaser built for his wife and children, and in particular his first son Raed, reflects his own fragmented upbringing as a Palestinian born in Jaffa on the eve of Israel’s founding. In the way Mohammed presents the family’s circumstances during testimony given as part of a failed refugee application in Canada in the 1990s, statelessness has been a chronic characteristic of Jaser history, with documents from various countries, both real and fake, the currency of their travels.

Mohammed was born in what was then Palestine a little more than a year before Israel’s founding in May 1948. “My family and I were forced to leave our country and homeland,” he testified. He went on to describe his family’s attempt to settle in the Gaza Strip, then still under Egyptian control, “where we lived under extremely harsh conditions after our exile.”

As a young man he saw the United Arab Emirates as a land of opportunity, leaving Gaza for Dubai in 1966 and working variously as a teacher and advertising man with a Kuwaiti newspaper. At some point he married Saudi-born Sabah, also a Palestinian. They’d ultimately spend 24 years in the U.A.E., and it was here that, on Dec. 7, 1977, Raed was born. Life there, which depended on U.A.E.-issued work and resident permits, agreed with Mohammed and his young family, giving him “a very good quality of life such as a well-paid job, free house, free car, etc.”

The Gulf War, which broke out in August 1990, proved a turning point. As a result of that conflict, Mohammed told the refugee board, he and other Palestinians encountered hostility from U.A.E. authorities. Mohammed said his lot was particularly hard due to his job as head of the advertising department of Al Syasa, a “political” newspaper. His children were expelled from their schools, and he himself “was ordered to work as a spy against my own people.”

Now it was the murkiness of Mohammed’s status that threw the family’s future into uncertainty. As a Palestinian citizen in Gaza, Egypt, which controlled the area, did not give him citizenship, but instead issued him a special travel document, “meant only for stateless Palestinians,” according to refugee-board filings. When Israel took control of Gaza after the Six Day War in 1967, however, Mohammed could no longer return there, according to his testimony. Therefore, in 1968, he exchanged his Egyptian ID for a Jordanian travel document that did not at the same time give him citizenship or a right to reside in Jordan.

That string of national affiliations, which allowed travel but never granted the family permanent residence anywhere, left Mohammed, Sabah and the children stranded now that they found themselves persecuted in Dubai. Authorities there tapped his phones, monitored him, and ultimately expelled the Jasers, he said as part of his refugee application.

In 1991 they fled to Berlin, a city with a Muslim population that is mostly Turkish. There they applied for refugee status. “We lived as outsiders, in fear of growing and hardening anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments,” Mohammed told the refugee board. It was the Molotov cocktail that persuaded them to abandon their refugee claim and pick up stakes again, he said: “we were forced to flee in fear of our lives.”

Mohammed arranged for his family to receive forged French passports, obtained from a Turk, which he destroyed in Frankfurt once the family had successfully cleared German customs.

The Jasers landed in Toronto on March 26, 1993. Their subsequent application for refugee status quivers with a palpable sense of loss and abandonment. As Mohammed wrote: “I have claimed to be a Convention Refugee from Israel as a result of my identification as a Palestinian. On that basis and as a non-Jewish former permanent resident and national of the area, I am unable to return because of my membership in the Palestinian group.”

In January 1994, an Immigration and Refugee Board panel denied that application, indicating in part that the family could have sought the protection of German authorities in the event they felt threatened there. The family appealed for judicial review, which ultimately triggered a new hearing. The outcome of that hearing, if it was held at all, is not available to the public.

Still, they remained in Canada. If all this upheaval had an effect on Raed, then in his early teens, it did not take long for it to simmer up to the surface.

In October 1995, less than three years after he arrived in Canada, Raed was criminally charged in Newmarket, Ont., with fraud under $5,000. The charge was eventually withdrawn. In December 2000, a week after turning 24, he was arrested again, this time accused of uttering threats. Although court records show Raed was convicted of that charge, it remains unclear what sentence he received.

Yet elsewhere life was improving for the Jasers. By then they had purchased a $315,000 house, in the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ont. The two-storey brick home boasted a double car garage and a swimming pool in the backyard. And their Canadian roots extended to other parts of the country: Raed’s first experiences of Montreal, where his co-accused Esseghaier lives, were likely due to the presence there of two paternal uncles, one of whom is a convention refugee.

From the outside, at least, it appeared the Jaser clan—Raed included—was living the Canadian dream. Max Salida, a next-door neighbour, recalls Raed as friendly and willing to make small talk, an average young Canadian with a black sports car. “If it’s the same person,” he said, “I can’t believe he could be connected to something like this.”

With their neighbours, the family did not talk religion or politics, and seemed generally adjusted to Western life. In those days, say neighbours, the women in the Jaser house did not wear head coverings, and family members took to the pool wearing garden-variety swimwear. But they were open about their Muslim faith. One neighbour, who asked that his name be withheld, recalls being in the house when a young white man walked in, greeting them with the Arabic salutation, “Salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you). “I kind of looked at [Mohammed],” said the neighbour. “He said, ‘We’ve converted this man.’ ”

According to land-registry records, the family did have money problems. Raed’s parents remortgaged the Markham property multiple times, and were eventually forced to move in 2007 after the home was foreclosed. The following summer, 2008, Raed and his brother Nabil launched a limousine company: Nexus Executive Limousine Services Inc. By 2010, Raed, by this time married, moved into a one-bedroom basement apartment in east-end Markham, living at that address for nearly a year. “He was a nice guy,” the landlady said. “He was not bothering us.”

Raed and his wife moved out of the apartment in the summer of 2011. That October, according to corporate records, his limo company dissolved. The following summer, according to police, who say they were tipped off by a member of the Muslim community, Raed Jaser came under the radar of anti-terror investigators in the RCMP.

Whatever the truth, the details will trickle out. They always do.

Canadians eventually learned the truth about the so-called “Toronto 18”—and how its core members, led by 20-year-old Zakaria Amara, plotted mass murder in the name of Allah. Amara himself pleaded guilty, apologizing in court to his “fellow Canadians” and telling the judge how “lucky” he was to be caught before his truck bombs exploded.

Canadians eventually learned the truth about Momin Khawaja, born and raised in Ottawa. Arrested in 2004—while working as a software engineer for the Department of Foreign Affairs—the closet extremist was secretly toiling away in his basement, building a remote-controlled detonator for aspiring terrorists in the United Kingdom. As revealed at trial, he dubbed his deadly creation the “Hi-fi Digimonster.”

And Canadians eventually learned the truth about the Algerian government’s stunning allegations, back in January, that two Canadians were among the dead terrorists who attacked a remote gas refinery. Indeed, the bodies were Canadian: two men from London, Ont. , both in their 20s, who had become so radicalized so rapidly that they travelled overseas to volunteer as suicide bombers. Xristos Katsiroubas, raised in a Greek Orthodox family, was a recent convert to Islam. His friend, Ali Medlej, was born a Muslim, but smoke and drank and played high school football before joining the jihad.

For now, the truth about Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier is buried in thousands of pages of disclosure handed over to their defence lawyers. The files almost certainly contain surveillance footage, wiretapped conversations, and more damning details about one of the RCMP’s few revelations: that the suspects allegedly received “direction and guidance” from an unspecified al-Qaeda element in Iran.

Where did the two suspects meet? How did they communicate? How did they make contact with their supposed al-Qaeda associate in Iran?

One thing, though, is certain: for agencies tasked with protecting public safety, homegrown Islamist terrorism remains its biggest, ever-evolving challenge. Osama bin Laden may be dead, his network decimated. But a new generation of self-starting, Internet-inspired wannabes remain committed to the movement, willing—like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston—to act alone. Many in Canada’s Muslim community are keenly aware of that reality, and have worked diligently with authorities to weed out potential threats; according to reports, it was a Toronto imam who first warned the Mounties about Jaser. But it is an endless struggle, a constant balancing act.

“There are just too many targets for the numbers of resources we have, so you keep on going toward the highest threat level,” says Ray Boisvert, former director-general of counterterrorism at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. “Who poses the highest potential threat? You may have a couple of young guys, perhaps looking at things the wrong way, and you go and have a conversation with them. If they deny and everything is good, unless they’re showing me a significant threat profile, investigative agencies will move on. They won’t ignore them completely, but they’ve got to keep moving.”

Complicating the challenge even further is the misconception that all homegrown terrorists are wired the same. Experts who study the trend found one overriding motivation: a desire to strike back at the West, in glorious fashion, for its supposed atrocities in Muslim countries. “The message that the world is fundamentally ‘at war’ with Islam is key to the Islamist ‘single narrative’—or ‘one-size-fits-all explanation’—that drives terrorism the world over,” says a 2009 report from the RCMP, entitled “Radicalization: A Guide for the Perplexed.” “The romance of this unequal struggle may be especially appealing to young Muslims, who feel both justified and compelled to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters against the powerful forces arrayed against them.”

But the few Muslims who actually answer that extremist call do not fit one mould. They are rich and poor, educated and illiterate, devout and impious. “It’s difficult to pinpoint any particular background,” says Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior associate at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has studied homegrown terrorism. “They’ve spanned the socio-economic horizon. They’ve been doctors. They’ve been unemployed. They’ve been students. We think they have two factors in common: they are disenfranchised for some reason, and they are influenced in some way by someone, usually via the Internet.”

Brian Michael Jenkins, one of America’s leading terrorism experts, says religion isn’t even the biggest factor that motivates homegrown terrorists. In fact, he says, it’s not even near the top of the list. “In my own research, the attributes that emerge again and again are anger, desire for collective revenge, feelings of humiliation, desire to demonstrate manhood, to join a warrior elite, participate in an epic struggle,” he says. “And the one that recurs again and again is personal crisis. For a lot of these young men who have gone down this path, the ideology has become a conveyor of individual discontent. To put it crudely, their life sucks—and terrorism becomes something meaningful.”

For Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, locked in solitary jail cells, life could not be much worse than it is right now.

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